By Nathan Smith
Despite my love for criticism, I can’t stand rap criticism. Other than a few exceptions (shouts out to Jeff Weiss), it seems like almost every rap critic’s job description mandates that they must fail hip-hop culture on a regular basis. From Kanye to Kendrick to any rapper in the “underground,” almost every positive rap review seems to say one thing: “This isn’t what you’d expect from a rap album!!!!!!” It’s as if every rap listener doesn’t actually like rap.
As someone engrossed in hip-hop culture, it frustrates me that so many active listeners of hip-hop that I know want it to be either “intelligent” or “ignorant.” I’m baffled as to why people can’t see how problematic both of these labels are. In the late 90s, Anticon put out two compilations, Hip Hop Music for the Advanced Listener and Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop, as if somehow hip-hop isn’t inherently “advanced.” Add in that the majority of the artists on these compilations are white and you’ve got a whole new set of problems. Saying you want your hip-hop only “ratchet” or “ignorant” does the same thing. There seems to be an implication, particularly from the white listeners who throw around these terms, that growing up around poverty, guns, or drugs and actively discussing it means that you’re stupid. Granted, there are rappers who “glorify” these topics. But automatically dismissing a record because of the rapper’s background makes you, at best, the ignorant one and, at worst, racist. No one cares about Jack White’s level of intelligence. No one gripes when Arcade Fire puts out a record about their middle-class, suburban background. I recognize that a good percentage of hip-hop’s audience has been white for a long time, but just because your own privilege provides you with a great deal of purchasing power doesn’t mean you have the right to dictate what rap, which has historically been a black art form, should be. While every major American musical art form has been pioneered (and robbed from) black musicians, the struggle to keep rap as a voice for black artists has long defined its central narratives. If you’re white, you’re a guest here. (Yes, I’m a guest too.) And race aside, it’s ridiculous to dictate what a genre, even one other than rap, should or should not be. Labels are futile. Can’t we agree on that? A rapper should be able to talk about whatever he or she wants to talk about, regardless of whether we might think it “smart” or “dumb.” Certain topics do not have a greater or lesser value than others; it’s the artist’s presentation of those topics that matters.
All that said, it’s time to talk about a rapper who couldn’t care less about your labels- Open Mike Eagle. His fourth and latest album, Dark Comedy, is funny, emotional, and smart as hell. So many times when a rap album contains cleverness, humor, or wit, there’s an assumption on the part of listeners and reviewers that it’s an attempt by the artist to prove their superiority over others working in the genre. Although the case for some rappers, that mode of thinking exists only insofar as the culture and rhetoric surrounding rap tell us it does. But Open Mike Eagle doesn’t care about your expectations, or what the culture-at-large wants rap music to be. His music exists the way it does because he exists the way he does. He’s smart, but not in a demeaning way. He’s concerned about the NSA, but not trying to inundate you with his fears. He’s hilarious, but this ain’t joke rap. His beats slap, but they make you cry too. Even the name of the album, Dark Comedy, gives you a glimpse inside his world of dualities.
Few other rappers are as cognizant of the parallels between comedy and hip-hop as Open Mike Eagle. Rappers have been told time and time again that their genre is inherently a joke, so the comparison might offend many. But Mike has openly and warmly embraced the world of sketch, variety shows, and podcasting. One of the greatest comedians working today (and an old college pal of Eagle’s), Hannibal Buress, shows up for a verse on this album, and Kool A.D., arguably one of the funniest and most socially-aware rappers out, spits a couple bars too. Even if Open Mike Eagle wasn’t so clearly in tune with the commonalities between rap and comedy, they serve as perfect metaphors for his music.
For a large segment of its audience, comedy exists, much like rap, in a world of two hemispheres: the “ignorant” and the “intellectual.” There’s nothing wrong with Gabriel Iglesias or Bill Maher, but the greatest comedians never land firmly in either camp. They can write jokes about both body fat and George Bush, but as the fourth season of Louie has confirmed time and time again, great comedy isn’t about laughs at all: it’s about empathy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from artists like Marc Maron, Richard Pryor, Patton Oswalt, and Louis C.K., it’s that when you approach someone through laughter, you gain the ability to communicate your own life story. I think that’s what Mike wants to do. He’s concerned about both politics and poop, but mostly in how they relate to his struggles as a regular person. Dark Comedy is the epitome of rap at its purest level- a guy telling his life story over a beat. But because Open Mike Eagle has such control over his words and voice he can take it to all sorts of unexplored dimensions. The pointedness of his references and sharply-defined humor draw you in at first, but quickly you realize that’s not all that’s there. There’s a story within each sound, a son who needs his diaper changed, dishes that need washing, eyes that need to stay open and on the road. As a listener you can’t ignore the life within the walls. I’m reminded of Wesley Snipes’ attempt to explain the difference between “listening” and “hearing” Jimi Hendrix to Woody Harrelson in the movie White Men Can’t Jump. You can’t simply “listen” to Dark Comedy. You have to hear it. And once you hear it you can say, “I understand you.”
I’m tired of rap’s constant pigeon-hole problem. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten deeper into hip-hop, it’s that labels aren’t okay. We need to leave our own expectations at the door and engage with someone else’s experiences on a pure, honest, and open level, because that’s really all that rap is: someone else’s experiences. We need to hear more and listen less. Every syllable tells a saga, even if its one we might not understand. By dismissing that which seems too “intelligent” or too “ignorant,” we dismiss a life. Complaints constantly fly about the high death toll in many rap songs, so you’d expect a greater respect for those lives. But by shrugging off the songs we think we won’t like, we kill someone’s attempt at breaking through to a person who might not ever hear their story, unless it comes with a beat.
Open Mike Eagle has a story to tell. On Dark Comedy, he gets that story across more effectively and beautifully than any other rap album this year. It’s a record filled with fears, frustrations, and anxieties, but it’s also about laughter, friendship, and the shattering of expectations. So here’s the moral of the story. It’s okay to dress like Sun Ra. It’s okay to go on UPorn. It’s okay to have the same phone number for a decade. But it’s not okay to bootleg Hannibal Buress’ comedy, it’s not okay to do “Kashmir” at karaoke night, and it’s not okay to assign labels. Just like it’s not okay to sleep on Dark Comedy. That’s not just the comedic rule of thirds. It’s the quintessential truth, Ruth.
Open Mike Eagle’s new record Dark Comedy is available now on Mello Music Group.